One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.

Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.

Like his predecessor, Maduro was able to commandeer the vast resources of the state to assist his campaign. Even before the polls opened, the opposition was alleging irregularities. The most egregious example involved Maduro’s decision to carry on campaigning on state television the night before the election by broadcasting his visit, with Diego Maradona at his side, to the tomb of Chavez. Thirty-six hours later, the Capriles camp claims that it has documented more than 3,000 irregularities, from violent intimidation of voters to keeping polling stations open past their official closing time. On these matters and more, the CNE has had nothing to say.

For seasoned observers of Venezuelan politics, the inherent bias of the CNE is nothing new. Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana last week refused an invitation to observe the election, telling Tibisay Lucena, a former Chavez aide who is now president of the CNE, that voters would go to the polls “in a situation where the system of checks and balances that should guarantee fairness for all has long been skewed in favor of those who hold power today in Venezuela. The composition of the CNE is itself a reflection of this reality.” Separately, more than 200 regional dignitaries, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, issued a statement that anticipated today’s crisis by demanding “electoral transparency” and “equal access to the media and institutional resources.” The only observers on the ground yesterday–including representatives of the Carter Center, much loved by the Venezuelan regime thanks to former President Jimmy Carter’s infamous statement that the country’s electoral system is the “best in the world”–weren’t really observers. Their official designation as acompañantes (accompaniers) determined that their role was merely to rubber-stamp a Maduro victory.

It’s still early days, but a notably absent voice in this controversy has been that of the United States. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Noriega pointed out, the clearest statement thus far from the administration came in the form of congressional testimony from national intelligence chief James Clapper, who predicted a comfortable win for Maduro. “With that sort of superficial analysis, it is no surprise that Washington has no influence over whether a hostile narcostate and best friend of Iran and Hezbollah holds on to power in Venezuela,” Noriega wrote.

In considering how to respond to what may well be a stolen election–according to the official tally, Maduro won by just 235,000 votes–the U.S. should be mindful of the fact that the most vulnerable individual in this scenario is Maduro himself. In the abstract, Maduro had everything going for him. He was the anointed successor of Chavez. He had the pledge of the defense minister, Diego Molero, that the armed forces, in violation of the constitution, would support the continued reign of chavismo. He spent much of the last few weeks insinuating that state employees, among them the 115,000 workers of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, would lose their jobs if they didn’t vote for him. And he has cracked down on the last remnants of the independent media in Venezuela, most obviously the Globovision television station, which had been among the most tenacious critics of the Chavez regime.

Yet Maduro failed to persuade almost one million previously faithful chavista voters that he was a worthy inheritor of Chavez, whose personality cult in death is larger and more pervasive than when he was alive. He also presides over a bitterly divided nation that is on the edge of economic collapse–Venezuela may be a petrostate, but it is also a narcostate, as evidenced by the participation of senior military and political officials (including Molero) in the drug trade, and on the road to becoming a failed state. Indeed, some may legitimately question whether Venezuela is in fact a state in the meaningful sense of the word, given the enormous influence of the Cuban regime over Maduro, who served as foreign minister under Chavez, and the continued provision of billions of dollars of subsidized oil to Havana.

At a recent New York seminar on Venezuela for financial analysts, one panelist concluded that while chavismo had been “massively weakened,” it would be “three years” before the space for an opposition victory opened up. What yesterday’s election proves is that the death knell for chavismo has already been sounded. The question now is whether the regime will agree to negotiate with the opposition or whether it will become a fully-fledged dictatorship, thus risking a repeat of the violence that accompanied the attempted 2002 coup against Chavez. This time around, it is Venezuelan democrats who will be searching for the hand of God.

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